Nebula-Award-winner Elizabeth Moon triumphantly returns to science fiction with this space opera adventure, perfect for fans of Lois McMaster Bujold, James S. A. Corey and Star Wars.
SLOTTER KEY NEARSPACE
Ky Vatta stared down at her home planet as her pinnace took her from Vanguard II, her flagship, to the lower-orbit space station where she would take a shuttle down to the surface. Once there, she would have to assume the role of Grand Admiral Vatta, homecoming hero of the recent war. But here, between the place she had made for herself—as founder and commander of Space Defense Force—and the welcome that awaited her, she had a short time to deal with her own feelings.
She did not want to be here. She did not want to be anywhere near Slotter Key. She felt nothing warm or sentimental about her home planet, the city she knew so well, or the lost home in which she had grown up. She did not want the good memories to rise, because with them would come the immediacy and certainty of loss.
No, she wanted to be very far away, on a completely different planet, where the only person who knew all her secrets was equally eager to leave his old memories behind. Rafael Dunbarger, now CEO of the vast InterStellar Communications, had also survived family loss and treachery. Ky knew her darker side would not shock Rafe, as his did not shock her.
Rafe was born into wealth and privilege, son of a rising ISC executive; his accidental killing of a would-be kidnapper had consigned him to a vicious reform school. After that, his family had paid him an allowance to leave the planet, and he’d supplemented that remittance in various shady ways. Eventually, his father began using him as a company spy. When his father, mother, and sister were taken hostage, Rafe had organized their rescue. Finally, he’d succeeded to his father’s job, as CEO of ISC.
Despite a difference in age and background, Ky thought, they matched well: both had killed, and both had enjoyed it. Both liked—needed—excitement. Both admitted to being bored with the routine of a desk job. They had planned a getaway several times, had been within a day of leaving for it, when this had come up.
This being Great-Aunt Grace Lane Vatta, eldest surviving member of the Vatta family and Ky’s childhood nemesis, always critical and nosy. While Ky was far away, Grace had been appointed the head of Slotter Key’s Department of Defense: the Rector. But Grace Lane Vatta had not used that as a reason to demand Ky’s return to Slotter Key. No, this was a family crisis, some legal complication involving Vatta’s commercial empire in which Ky still owned a large block of shares.
So Grace insisted, as she always had, and Ky obeyed, as she always had, resentfully. And that—her inability to just say no, politely but firmly—infuriated Ky. She was an admiral now. She had commanded fleets, won battles against high odds. And to cave because an old . . . even in thought, she dared not say anything but old woman . . . had said “Come” was intolerable. The words she might have said, should have said, ran through her mind again.
Then her implant dropped a microgram of neuroactive into her brain’s circulation and she felt her breathing and heart rate slow again. She turned in her seat, looking across at Jen Bentik, her aide. Commander Bentik, since Jen was so very Cascadian, so very committed to that particular and demanding level of correct behavior. Fifteen years older than Ky, and a head taller, she had been Ky’s aide for almost a standard year—another problem Ky needed to deal with.
Jen had been watching her, a line between her perfectly shaped brows indicating concern. “Does it look familiar, Admiral?”
Ky nodded. “A lot of water, a lot of islands. Very different from Cascadia, for sure.”
“I still think it would have been more appropriate for you to take Vanguard’s shuttle down to the surface,” Jen said, changing the topic. In her mind, Ky’s status in the Space Defense Force gave her the right to land an SDF shuttle anywhere she pleased.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ky said. “They see sending up a Spaceforce shuttle as a military honor.”
“I suppose. I don’t mean to be critical of your home planet, Admiral—” Really? Jen had so far been critical about Slotter Key’s every detail, as Ky shared them. “But it seems to me that they’re not quite—” Jen paused.
“Up to Cascadian standards?” Ky asked. Jen flushed; her lips thinned. Ky sighed inwardly. She had needed an aide: an admiral’s life in peacetime was far more complicated than she had imagined, and Jen was efficient, organized, and capable of handling many situations Ky found difficult. But Jen didn’t stop there. She assumed her own sober middle age and Cascadian background gave her license to treat Ky like the child of uncouth barbarians when they were alone. “I did tell you,” Ky said, keeping her voice light and pleasant, “Slotter Key’s a lot more casual. You will find it difficult, I expect, at least at first.”
Up came Jen’s hackles, so easily raised. “I will be perfectly polite.” In a tone that meant she was still angry.
“Yes, of course. You always are.” Impossible to explain to someone who had never been outside her own culture that another set of rules might be legitimate. The last visit to Moray had been marred by Jen’s complaints that it was not like Cascadia. This was the core reason she’d planned to change aides soon. “If someone’s being rude—rude in Slotter Key terms—I’ll make it clear.”
“They don’t have etiquette books? To warn strangers about the rules?” Cascadia handed every arriving passenger a thick book of rules, and no one could leave the ship until they had agreed to abide by them or face a court. Ky had never found another system so obsessed with etiquette.
“We do—did—but they’re mostly for children. For adults, it’s a matter of mutual negotiation. There’s no legal standard. In my religion”—the one she didn’t follow anymore—“it’s important not to take offense unless offense is meant.”
“I will do my best, Admiral,” Jen said, as if picking up a burden almost too heavy to carry.
“I’m certain you will,” Ky said. “You always do.” Ky’s skullphone pinged. Her flagship’s captain, Pordre, reported that a Slotter Key Spaceforce shuttle had arrived at the main space station. “Thank you, Captain,” she said. “Shouldn’t be any time wasted, then.” She looked out the viewport, now in a better mood, though whether from her implant’s chemicals or Pordre’s report she did not know. She could see ships docked at the space station clearly; several Vatta ships clustered together in Vatta’s dedicated section. Back to normal, then—another sign of Stella’s fitness to run the family business.
When she’d left Slotter Key, she’d been a disgraced former cadet, a political embarrassment to be whisked away out of reach of the media as quickly as possible. How naïve she’d been, how easily fooled by a first-year cadet asking for help, how blind to the political implications. She wouldn’t make that mistake again, though she should probably expect someone to bring up that mess. Most wouldn’t. Aunt Grace had told her she was billed as a hero returning in triumph. A trickle of humor rose. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad to come home for a few days; it surely couldn’t be worse than her departure had been.
Below the viewport, the familiar shapes of continents and island chains passed in review. Port Major, the oldest city and planetary capital, was obscured by thick clouds, but north of it on Voruksland’s east coast, she picked out Grinock Bay, center of an extinct volcano. She’d never been there. Corleigh, the island her family had lived on, Port Major on the mainland, and her uncle’s country home southwest of Port Major: that was the extent of her onplanet experience.
She turned from the viewport again; Jen handed her the latest memtip. Ky uploaded it to her implant. The schedule for the rest of the day; the draft of the speech she would give at dinner that evening; the faces and names of notables who would greet her after landing onplanet or be seated at the same table at dinner. For one of them, she needed no memtip: the Commandant of Slotter Key’s military academy.
She could have done without that. The last time she’d seen him, he’d told her she must resign. Now she was an admiral at only twenty-nine, and from a political point of view—something she had learned to recognize—she represented one of the Academy’s triumphs. It was bound to be awkward.
“Thank you, Jen,” she said. “Your usual excellent briefing.” Jen nodded.
The pinnace docked smoothly. Ky stood when the light came on, and the pinnace pilot came into the cabin. “Good flight, Morey,” she said to him.
“We’ll be back to pick you up anytime, Admiral,” he said. “Just let us know.”
That was another thing about this visit. Open-ended, Aunt Grace had said. It might take longer than planned. No longer than necessary, she told herself. Her life was elsewhere. “I’ll let you know the moment I know,” she said. “I don’t plan to take a vacation down there.”
“You want us to wait until you’ve boarded the shuttle?”
“No need. It’s already docked. I’ll be fine. Captain Pordre has all my contact codes.” All but one, the very secret one she shared only with Rafe Dunbarger.
Jen Bentik stood aside as Ky walked to the hatch. All lights green. A perfect match, and thus no reason to worry. She worried anyway. The past few years had given her every reason for caution and few for complacency. She still wore her personal armor under her clothes; she still carried a loaded weapon in all circumstances.
The hatch opened into a standard air lock. Beyond was the ramp down into the station itself, where the Commandant—erect as ever but showing his age now—awaited her. Professionally impassive, of course, the telltale eyelid not drooping today, and his gaze boring into her like an industrial laser. To either side, behind him, rows of media reps were held back by station security.
“Admiral Vatta,” he said. Nothing in his tone but courtesy; the sawtooth edge to his voice that had greeted her at their last meeting was undetectable. She had no doubt he could still deploy it. “Welcome to Slotter Key. The Rector of Defense and the President both asked me to convey their sincere regrets that they could not meet you here.”
She had wondered if he would call her by her rank—the rank she had assumed of necessity, not through the usual process of regular promotions overseen by a Board. But of course he did in front of the media. The snakelike tendrils of media feeds hovered over them both. People onplanet would be watching it live. It made her skin itch, but she had the experience now to handle it as blandly as he did.
“Thank you, Commandant.” He had a last name, but no one ever used it. “I am delighted to meet you again.”
His smile held a glimmer of warmth. “And I you, Admiral.” He glanced aside, and two of the enlisted personnel with him moved past her toward the hatch to fetch her luggage and Jen’s—just one regular case each, and their survival suits, packed by her own trusted crew. That last had necessitated a brief tussle with someone on the Spaceforce end, who had only grudgingly agreed that she could bring it if she wanted. The Commandant’s aide, she saw, had turned slightly aside, clearly listening to something in his earbug.
“This is my aide, Commander Bentik,” Ky said. “She is from Cascadia, in the Moscoe Confederation.”
“Glad to meet you, Commander,” the Commandant said. “Forgive me that I am not fully acquainted with Cascadian protocol.”
“It is my honor, sir,” Bentik said. “I assure you I will not take offense. Cascadian protocol is not an issue here; I must hope that I have mastered that of Slotter Key.”
“Let there be no strain between us,” the Commandant said, the proper Cascadian mode for senior to junior, and turned to Ky. “As the shuttle is ready, Admiral, we might defer further courtesies to the shuttle lounge, if that suits you.”
“The Rector asked me to tell you that her new arm is in good shape, but she had a minor accident two days ago—nothing to worry about, she insists. Her physicians recommended she not come up, or she would have met you herself.”
Ky’s wariness went up a notch—accident? Or attack?—but she kept her face and voice smooth. “I was wondering about her arm. We don’t comment on her age, but a complete biograft—”
“Could be a difficulty, but has not been for her.” The Commandant’s aide, head still cocked a little in the manner of someone receiving more information, led the way down the ramp to the arrival lounge, and the six-person security squad closed around them. The media presence melted away as they left the lounge for the first station corridor.
They moved through corridors Ky recognized from what now seemed a distant earlier life, bypassing Customs & Immigration, where a knot of uniformed officers smiled and nodded. Then into the commercial section, with its storefronts, eateries, and people lined up, not quite casually, to see her. More media clustered there, holding up recorders and calling out to her. She ignored them.
“The trip down will be somewhat longer than usual,” the Commandant went on. “I presume you received the weather bulletin?”
“That front moving in?”
“Yes. You know what the early-spring storms are like. Right now it’s blowing snow downside in the capital, but they say we’ll be delayed only a couple of hours. Should be clear by 1400 or so.” He gave her a sideways glance. “We could have delayed the shuttle but the media have been very pushy. Rumor has it that you’ve come back with a warship to take revenge for the attacks on your family. That you’re in cahoots with the Rector, planning to seek and destroy the guilty. I thought it best to get you aboard quickly rather than give them a chance at you right away. A few extra orbits should see us safely past the storm; security’s better downside anyway.”
Ky shook her head as they reached the Spaceforce section. “It’s true Aunt Grace told me to come, but—”
“But rumors are rumors,” he said. “We still haven’t found out who started that one.”
He led the way to the shuttle departure area, where a group of Spaceforce personnel waited. They all stood; Ky found she remembered the insignia and marks of rank and grade, though she recognized none of the people. They looked at her with interest; she wondered how many knew about her past. Most, probably. Two were obviously flight crew, in the uniform of AirDefense rather than Spaceforce.
“Luggage just cleared Customs,” the Commandant’s aide said, finger to his earbug. “Perhaps four minutes; the crowd’s thickened. Admiral, I have the passenger list with notations, if you’d like to see it.”
“Thank you,” Ky said. She added his memtip to Jen’s and her implant began matching faces in the room to names, rank or rating, home region. Several were Miznarii, the most numerous and stringent anti-humod group on Slotter Key. No matter; they were not her concern, not in her chain of command.
“With your permission,” one of the pilots said, “we’ll start preflight.” As he spoke, Ky’s implant gave her his name: Commander Tarik Hansen. She glanced at the other pilot: Major Sunyavarta.
“Go right ahead,” the Commandant said to Hansen. “Our steward—there he is. Staff Sergeant Vispersen—”
“Yes, Commandant.” Vispersen, a slender dark man with graying hair and gray eyes, gave Ky a quick glance. “Did you want to board now or wait for the luggage?”
“Now, thank you.”
As she remembered, the shuttle boarding hatch was in the aft compartment; she and the Commandant boarded first. Vispersen led them forward through the aft compartment, with seats three abreast on one side, and two on the other. He directed their aides to the second compartment of four seats only, then waved them into the forward one. Here one side held pairs of seats with a fold-down table between them; across the wider aisle were six rows of two seats each. A far cry from the shuttle Ky had ridden as a cadet, with fold-up seats along the bulkheads and grabons with tethers down the middle.
Only one table was extended, laid with a white cloth and Spaceforce china. Ky was reminded of the Vatta china she had bought at . . . where was it? . . . that had been blown to bits with the old Vanguard. She and the Commandant sat down facing each other.
Vispersen went to the rear compartment. When he returned, he held the case with her survival suit. “Admiral, do you want this stowed with the rest of your luggage? We do have a suit sized for you.”
“Stow it up here,” Ky said. He nodded and moved forward past their table, then came back to stand beside it.
“Commandant, Admiral: regulations require me to remind you of emergency procedures—”
The Commandant waved his hand. “I paid attention on the way up, Simon.”
“Yes, Commandant, but the Admiral also needs to know—”
“Very well.” The Commandant gave a slight shrug. “I suppose something might have changed since she was last on a Spaceforce shuttle.”
“Admiral, this peep has all the audio and visual, and will sync to your implant if you’d rather.”
Ky took the sliver of black and silver but said, “I’ll hear it from you, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course.” He rattled off an obviously memorized speech listing the safety features, the kinds of emergencies most commonly encountered, the emergency supplies carried on board the passenger compartment—“which in extreme emergencies can be jettisoned and parachuted down safely, although this feature has been needed only twice in the past twenty-seven years.” Holograms formed in the air to illustrate what he was saying; Ky let her implant record it all for playback if she needed it, as she sealed the peep into one of her uniform pockets.
After that, Vispersen offered refreshments, and then retreated to a niche, closing a thick sound-baffling curtain behind him. She glanced at the platter of sandwiches and fought back the urge to laugh: the sandwiches were exactly the same kind she had been offered the day she’d been expelled from the Academy. She suspected the tea was, too.
The Commandant’s smile broadened. “It must feel very strange,” he said. “Here we are again, in a situation neither of us, I’m sure, anticipated. I had no idea what you would do, after that unfortunate day, though after having watched your excellent performance in the Academy, I trusted you would not be destroyed by it.” He paused; Ky said nothing. He gave a slight nod and went on. “But I did not imagine that within so few years—and after the devastating loss of your family—you would have raised a fleet larger than ours and saved so many worlds. Including ours. In hindsight, forcing you to resign was the best thing I could have done for everyone, not just Slotter Key. But tell me, did you really learn how to do all that in your Academy classes? Or did Rector Vatta give you private instruction?”
“Aunt Grace?” Ky laughed. “No, Commandant. Aunt Grace’s lectures were all about etiquette. I had no idea that she’d been in the Unification War, or run Vatta’s security and intelligence. We kids thought she was just a fussy old lady with a passion for manners.”
“Well, then, I’m even more impressed. We do our best, but we don’t usually have new-hatched cadets who can command ships, let alone a fleet in battle. I’ve seen the vids our ships made of that battle at Nexus Two. Our analysis said it should have been impossible for you to win.”
“I had a lot of help,” Ky said. “And I wasn’t that confident.” Just that desperate. Turek’s armada had defeated one system after another, and his agents had destroyed or sabotaged vital communications and financial ansibles, gaining wealth and ships with every conquest. By the time Turek attacked Nexus II, it was obvious that only Ky’s fleet and the allies she’d made had a chance of defeating him. A slim chance.
“Yes, of course. But by all accounts, you were the one who analyzed Turek’s tactics, grasped the potential of shipboard ansibles, gained the trust of multiple system governments to supply ships and personnel—and commanded in the battle itself. Your Space Defense Force has created a new paradigm for both military actions and political alliances. I hope you’ll consider giving some lectures to the instructors and senior cadets while you’re downside. We’ve cleared space in the schedule if you would.”
Return in triumph to the Academy, wipe out the former humiliation? Visiting scholars had plaques on the wall in the library; she imagined one with her name on it. Despite her desire to stay only as long as necessary, she felt the first temptation to linger and enjoy her fame.
“I can’t answer that immediately, Commandant,” she said. “I have nothing prepared; I was thinking only about the family business.” And since part of the reason for the victory at Nexus II was a secret she shared with Rafe—and had promised to keep—it would be hard to explain how she’d done it.
Vispersen returned. “Commandant, the pilot reports disengage imminent.” As he spoke, safety harnesses emerged from their seats.
“Very well,” the Commandant said, fastening his harness almost as fast as Ky fastened hers. “Any more on the route?”
“An extra orbit or two, sir; the new forecast puts the storm clearing Port Major an hour later than we were told before.”
“Keep me informed,” the Commandant said. He cocked an eye at Ky. “We shall try to keep it as smooth as deep space once we descend, but this is Slotter Key.”
She grinned and shook her head. “I haven’t forgotten that about Slotter Key. A thunderstorm or two isn’t going to bother me, Commandant.”
“Good.” He nodded at Vispersen, who retreated again behind the curtain.
Ky watched the other Spaceforce ship’s gleaming flank as they slid past it. “Most places I’ve been use tugs, even for shuttles. When we broke loose from a station without one, they were upset.” The shuttle cleared the station’s crowded docking space, angling away so that her view was again the planet’s surface, as if the planet, and not the shuttle, had moved.
He chuckled. “I imagine so. But clearly you didn’t hit anything. And here, Spaceforce has clearance to dock and undock smaller vessels without a tug.” He took a few sips of tea. “I’m delighted you turned out as you did, and yet sorry I can’t claim to have had much to do with it.”
Ky couldn’t think of an answer to that; she smiled, instead, and picked up a sandwich They ate in silence for a time. Ky wasn’t really hungry, and wondered whether the invitation to lecture at the Academy had really been his main point. Outside, the view below changed moment by moment as they slotted into a slow descent, several orbits shifting from Main Station’s to more polar. Sunlight on clouds and sea, darkness with flickers from lightning storms and lights outlining shores near the larger cities. She had a better view than she’d had before, even in the pinnace. Finally, the Commandant put down a last sandwich.
“About the lectures, if you choose to do them. Visiting lecturers have the assistance of staff—someone to help with library research, someone to run any visual displays you might want to use. There’s the speakers’ fee, too, and we can put you up in guest quarters—you and your aide both, if you wish.”
“How long were you thinking?” Ky asked. “I do have some issues back at headquarters—I shouldn’t be gone too long.”
“Whatever time you can spare.” He started to say something more and then shook his head. “It’s entirely your decision, of course. One thing I’d like to ask about is your organization—you mixed ships and commanders from several different worlds. Did you use Slotter Key’s tables, or come up with something new?”
“Even though I had another Slotter Key privateer, I thought it would be better to come up with something that fit what we actually had—the ship types, the command and combat experience. I gathered all the seniors around a table and held them there until we had something everyone thought they could work with.”
“That makes good sense.” He nodded. “I wondered how you melded different militaries into one force. We have enough trouble with all of us in one place working under the same organization. Were any mercenaries in on that?”
“Not then. Moscoe Confederation, Moray, Bissonet, a few others including the ships Spaceforce sent, and”—she grinned suddenly—“a group of gentlemen adventurers from somewhere—you would not believe—”
“Brave, rash, romance-of-adventure types, rich enough to own their own ships. Storybook characters.” Cannon fodder, though it would be rude to say so, especially since all but one had died with their ships.
“But now you have an organized fleet, and—any action?”
“Since Nexus, only a few minor actions against pirates. Probably some we didn’t get at Nexus, hoping to set up in between systems. That’s one of the reasons we have some issues.”
He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again and sipped his tea.
Ky wondered if he’d been about to ask what the issues were. Probably someone with his experience could guess, but he’d never had to deal with more than one government. “It’s political,” she said. “And since it involves the politics of other governments, I probably shouldn’t gossip about it.”
He nodded. “Money and power. We have that, too, though I’m sure it’s much harder to juggle with multiple governments. I wish you good luck with it. As for the lectures, if not this visit, another time perhaps. I’m sure you’ll be back to visit family.”
Not if she could help it. But she shouldn’t say that. She nibbled one of the lemon-flavored cookies instead.
He changed topics. “Will you stay with the Rector on this visit?”
“No, with my aunt Helen and cousin Stella. That’s why I’m here—the legalities of transferring corporate roles from Helen to Stella, since I’m a major stockholder.”
“Were you close to your cousins?”
“Fairly. We all spent time together every long vacation,” Ky said. It was easier to talk about than she’d expected. “They’d come over to Corleigh for a tenday or so to fish and sail, then we’d go over to the mainland with them—sometimes in the city and sometimes at the country place. Stella was the closest to me in age, just three years older; we were both the youngest of our families.”
“I’ve heard rumors that your cousin Stella was actually adopted . . .”
“It’s true. Neither of us knew until it all came out in a court in Cascadia. A shock to all of us—except Aunt Helen, of course.” She did not want to talk about Stella’s parentage. She especially did not want to talk about Stella’s birth-father, Osman Vatta, whom she had killed. Whom she suspected had been Gammis Turek’s associate, if not his father, and a reason Vatta had been attacked early in Turek’s campaign. The Commandant did not need to know—or have cause to notice—that she had discovered herself to be a natural killer, and killing Osman in close hand-to-hand had given her a solid jolt of glee. She looked out the viewport again.
They were on the other side of the planet from Port Major, somewhere over the Oklandan, the largest open ocean, with the southernmost continent, Miksland, just coming into view, dawn lightening its eastern end. A shelf of cloud overlaid much of the western end of it, but she could see a bit of the poleward coast, sharp red-brown against the dark-blue ocean, stark white of snow on what must be mountains. No one lived there; its description in Slotter Key geography books was “Terraforming Failure.”
“I’ve never seen Miksland before,” Ky said.
“There’s a weather station and Air-Sea Rescue base on a chain of islands west of it,” the Commandant said. “Too bad it’s under the clouds. Nothing on the continent itself, of course.”
“Why a base near it?” Ky asked. “I thought shipping stayed to the north.”
“It does, but there’s a very long gap between the next base to the east and the next one to the west, pushing the limit for Search and Rescue aircraft when they’re needed. This gives much better coverage for shipping. It’s harsh, though. And something about the continent interferes with communication.”
Vispersen reappeared, offering more tea and removing the plates. “We should start descent into atmosphere on the next orbit, about fifty minutes,” he said. “If you need the toilet, Admiral, that’s forward, across from the galley.”
“Already?” the Commandant said, then nodded. “Pleasant intervals pass quickly,” he said to Ky. “I had no idea we’d been chatting so long.”
“Nor I,” Ky said.
“If you wouldn’t mind—the flight crew were hoping to meet you—actually all the passengers were—”
“Of course, if we have time.”
“Estimating arrival in Port Major at 1530,” Vispersen said. He disappeared once more into the forward galley area, sealing the curtain behind him.
“Please,” the Commandant said, nodding toward the front.
Ky went forward and found herself in a more spacious area than she’d expected—a seat for the steward to starboard, along with luggage storage and a cubby with three orange bundles she recognized as personal survival suits. Her survival suit, in its blue case, lay on top of the luggage. Forward of that was the toilet, and across from it a galley; Vispersen was washing out the teapot. The hatch to the piloting compartment was open; she glanced in, seeing only the backs of the pilots’ heads and banks of half-familiar instruments. They wore full survival gear but for the helmets secured just above and behind them.
When she came out of the toilet, Vispersen wasn’t in the galley, or in his seat. She tapped on the rim of the cockpit hatch. Commander Hansen turned and smiled at her.
“Admiral, thanks for looking in.”
“Glad to meet you—Commander Hansen, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s an honor to meet you.”
Ky turned to the copilot, who grinned cheerfully. “I’m Yoshi Sunyavarta, Admiral. Delighted to meet you. My daughter saw you on the newsvids and told me she wants to grow up to be you.” His grin widened. “Though I must admit, last year she wanted to be a mountaineer, and the year before it was a racing jockey.”
“How old is she?”
“Sounds like me at that age,” Ky said. “Tell her I said good luck.”
“Thank you, Admiral.”
“The Commandant asked me to say something to the troops in back—do we have time?”
The two pilots looked at each other. “Just barely,” Hansen said finally. “We really like passengers to be seated once we start descent.”
“I’ll tell him we’re short on time,” Ky said. “Thank you both for a lovely flight.”
“Thank us again if we don’t have a rough patch coming in behind that front,” Sunyavarta said, grinning.
Ky laughed and turned away. When she went back through the curtain, Vispersen was speaking with the Commandant, who was stretching his back.
“The pilots said we’re short of time for a full introduction,” Ky said. “Unless you would like me to just say a few words to them as a group.”
“I let time slip up on me,” the Commandant said. “I was thinking mostly of Tech Betange—he’s on compassionate leave after his parents died, and he’s got younger siblings to arrange care for. I’ll make sure everyone has a chance to meet you once we’re down; it never does to upset the pilots.”
Ky slid into her seat and fastened the safety harness as Vispersen and the Commandant moved forward.
Out the port she saw darkness again, flickers of lightning below, then an arrangement of lights that must be a city. She couldn’t tell which by the pattern the lights made. She thought again of the Commandant’s suggestion that she give a lecture—or was it more than one?—at the Academy, and that reminded her again of the ansible in her implant. The Commandant came back to his seat and fastened his own harness. “Won’t be long,” he said.
“I noticed the pilots were in survival suits,” Ky said. “I remember they made us get into them on the way down, on our cadet trips.”
“That was more to be certain you knew how to put them on,” the Commandant said. “If something does happen, the flight crew shouldn’t need to change, but passengers will have time.”
Ky nodded and looked out the port again. She enjoyed this view of Slotter Key as they passed through the night to dawn, then day.
A soft chime rang. “Commencing reentry in three minutes,” said a recorded voice. “Secure all loose items, ensure safety toggles are engaged in case of any situation. Final warning at one minute. All personnel should be seated and in safety webbing at that time, with all loose items secured.”
Vispersen reappeared, glanced at their safety harnesses, and then went behind the curtain. At the one-minute warning, a louder chime, and reentry shields slid closed across the viewports. Ky felt nothing at the moment the shuttle should have been braking for reentry, which meant the artificial gravity was functioning normally. She wished she had the flight plan and knew this shuttle’s rate of descent, but she was a guest here, not a commander. It felt strange, after all the years in which she had always known exactly what was happening.
“There are some political complications you should be aware of,” the Commandant said.
Ky dragged her mind back to here and now. “Yes?”
“I don’t know if MacRobert briefed you on the situation on Slotter Key when you met him after the Nexus battle—”
“Not entirely, no.”
“Your great-aunt, now Rector, gathered most of the information about the origin of the attack on Vatta. She and MacRobert—whom I assigned to liaise with her—concluded that cover had come from the highest levels of government. She would have acted, if she had not been shot when assassins tried to kill the children she was guarding. And that is why I was the person to assist the former President to make a decision regarding his future.”
Ky blinked, trying to parse that statement. Did he mean he’d talked to the man or—something else? MacRobert had told her little, really, about the change of government on Slotter Key, except that Aunt Grace had provided key information and the former President had committed suicide. Had it been suicide? And why would the Spaceforce Academy Commandant be involved?
He continued before she could think what—and how—to ask.
“What you do not know—what only a few other people now living know—is that your great-aunt and I became acquainted during that civil war when we were both young. I was just a boy, in fact.”
That was not just a surprise; that was an immediate flare of curiosity. She didn’t know much about that war except that it had had something to do with the formation of the planetary government. It had been over long before she was born, and was barely mentioned in her school history class.
“I don’t think you need to know much about that,” the Commandant went on. “But there are still political repercussions from that nasty little war, and she and I both feel that the attack on Vatta may have been motivated by more than Osman Vatta’s personal malice.”
Ky could not think what to say; she was still struggling to imagine the Commandant and her great-aunt involved in a civil war.
“Recent intelligence suggests that there may still be some conspirators we haven’t identified. Rector Vatta has had difficulties with elements of the military, though it may not be related. She rubs some people the wrong way.” Ky could easily imagine that. He shrugged and went on. “The current President, though amenable to reasonable suggestions when he succeeded to the role, has been less so after the elections that followed. There’s a faction that strongly opposed sending ships to support your force. We think they—”
A loud chime interrupted him. The flight crew announcement light came on.
“Commandant, we have a situation.” Ky could not tell which of the pilots it was, but the voice sounded tense.
Ky forced herself not to ask questions. She looked at the port, still covered. She stared at it anyway. She hated being cut off from ship’s systems. She tried to imagine what would be below now, but without the course data the pilots had, it was only a wild guess.
“We’re going to need to make an emergency landing, possibly wet.” That same tense, over-controlled voice.
This was not her shuttle, not her command. The best thing to do was keep quiet and out of the way. She thought of her aide. This would only convince Jen that Slotter Key was a chaotic, undisciplined, dangerous place.
“Why?” The Commandant’s voice rose a fraction. She glanced at him, then back at the blank gray of the shield just outside the port.
“Threats, Commandant. Station Traffic Control reported credible threats during the previous orbit, and now there are anomalies in the instrument readings that were nominal before. We’ll be descending faster, and hoping to make it to Pingat Islands, the nearest field, but we’re getting more anomalies—some systems may fail. You will need to take steps—”
“Sirs—with respect—” Vispersen came into their compartment. He carried two bulging packages in his arms and set them down on the table. “You need to change into survival suits. Commandant, this is yours. Admiral—”
Ky looked at the packages, then back at him. Her suit, transported from her flagship, was in a blue duffel; both these were orange. “I need my own suit,” she said. “I can get it—” She started to release the safety harness.
“Ours has our own codes loaded in its transponder,” Vispersen said. “We got your measurements from your ship. I understand you brought your own—insisted on it—but it’s not compatible with our emergency communications channels.”
The Commandant was already pulling the tabs on the larger package. Spaceforce should be reliable, but—in light of the recent conversation and this emergency—she could not be certain. Survival suits could be sabotaged in any of a hundred ways, with fatal results to the user; she knew who had packed hers, back on Vanguard II. She glanced at the Commandant, and saw the same surmise in his eyes. Yet if they were going down they had to have the suits on. She stood up.
“I’ll use my own suit,” she said, allowing a little edge to her voice. “It’s in the front locker; I can find it.”
“No need, Admiral; I’ll bring it.” Vispersen snatched up the package she’d rejected and hurried forward, returning in a moment with her sealed blue duffel.
She peeled back the closure. “There are enough suits for everyone?” she asked the steward, lifting the suit out.
“Yes, Admiral,” Vispersen said. “Nobody left out.” He grinned. “Even me, when I’ve seen you safely suited. The aft stewards will be taking care of the other compartments.” He paused, then asked, “Will your aide be in her own suit?”
The Commandant gave him a sharp look but said nothing; he had his suit unfolded now, and was unsnapping the front closure. Tiny alarm bells rang in Ky’s mind.
“I’m certain she will,” Ky said, unfolding her own. “I know she brought it.”
“You can leave your shoes on if you want, Commandant,” Vispersen said. “These new models accept any footgear that doesn’t have an aggressive sole. Admiral, yours—”
“Is the same,” Ky said.
Ky’s stomach lurched a little as the anti-gravity failed to compensate completely for the increase in deceleration. She struggled for a moment with the tabs on the suit; one was stiffer than the others. Then she put her legs into the suit legs and stood up, one hand automatically on the nearest grabon, the other pulling the suit up over her uniform. The shuttle jerked and rolled to starboard; the Commandant, who had both hands busy fastening the torso toggles on his, fell sideways, but Vispersen caught him.
“AG compromised,” said a mechanical voice from above. “Expect unpredictable vector accelerations.”
Ky worked her free arm into the suit arm, changed hands on the grabon without letting go, and worked her other arm into the suit before another lurch came. She saved herself a knock on the head by stiff-arming the bulkhead. Vispersen was helping the Commander attach the helmet and its connections. Ky maneuvered back into her seat, slid one arm under the emergency seat restraint webbing, and fastened her own torso closure. Then she dug into the suit bag for her helmet.
“Secure for shuttle rotation. Expect zero G first, then hard Gs.”
The artificial gravity cut out completely during rotation. Sandwiches and tea tried to wiggle up her throat, but Ky kept them down. To her surprise, the viewport screens retracted, letting daylight into the cabin. Shouldn’t they stay covered in an emergency? Vispersen, legs swinging above the deck briefly, moved from the Commandant to her.
“Let me get that helmet hooked up and sealed for you.”
“Thank you,” Ky said. The Commandant, now webbed into his seat across from her, helmet face-shield open, had the inwardly focused look of someone in serious discussion with his innards. Vispersen closed the tabs she hadn’t yet managed, then attached the helmet and its connectors. “I’ve got the display now,” she said. Her own familiar display, with all the readouts in the right places, including readouts Spaceforce would not have and a seamless integration with her implants.
Vispersen opened an overhead locker and pulled out another suit, easing into it with practiced efficiency. Like Ky, he slid an arm through the seat webbing of the remaining seat before putting on his helmet.
She felt pressure against her back as the shuttle braked hard. More, and then more. Something popped in her suit, and she felt a protective cushion expand. Her mind seemed to split into separate tracks: questions (who, why, what, when, how?), a stream of possible outcomes (if the shuttle blew up, if it made it to land, if it crashed in the ocean), and an inchoate swirl of animal emotion, frantic. She locked that into a mental cupboard. That was panic. This was real: here, inside the shuttle. She set aside the things she could not predict or control (would the shuttle explode? Would they crash?) and reviewed what resources she had. A functioning survival suit, her bulletproof armor under her uniform, her 10mm pistol, her implant stuffed with her father’s Vatta data and her own for both Vatta and her own organization. The ansible implant, and the cable for it she wore as a hidden necklace.
If she survived to landing, she was not without resources, not even counting what might be on the shuttle or in others’ kits. “I don’t think this is aimed at you, Admiral Vatta,” the Commandant said. “I have annoyed many people in my time, some of them quite dangerous.”
“Two fish with one hook,” Ky said.
He grinned; she could tell it took effort. “Possibly. But sabotaging this shuttle almost had to be internal, in Spaceforce, where you’re more popular than not. We’ve got good crew—and there’s a master sergeant in back. You got the full list in from my aide, right?”
“If anything—well, if you need to, take care of them.” If she survived and he didn’t, that meant. His trust in her gave her an instant’s warmth.
Ky’s implant pinged her: Pordre, her flag captain. “Admiral—the course changes—are you in trouble?”
“Sabotage,” she said. “Shuttle problems—”
“We’ve launched one of our shuttles. Any chance of matching orbits? Doing a transfer?”
“No, we’re already too far down,” Ky said. “Where’s ours?”
“High and behind, but we’ve got an eye on you. Looks like you’re headed for a cluster of islands west of that line of cliffs—what is that, anyway?”
“Small continent, terraforming failure,” Ky said. “Patch me through to the shuttle crew.”
“Right away, Admiral. That’s Lieutenant Sonducco.”
“Vanguard Two shuttle—this is Lieutenant Sonducco—Admiral?”
“Vatta here,” Ky said. “You still have us visually?”
“Yes, but you’re going into that cloudbank before we can get down to your altitude. It’s several layers deep—top’s at seventeen thousand meters. We’ll lose you to visual, and to scan until we lose some vee. Vanguard should be able to track you, and we’ve got a good probable trajectory.”
“There should be islands ahead of us—how far?”
“Not going to make it on that course, Admiral. You’ll be east of them, approx—”
The transmission ended as if someone had flicked a switch: no hiss, no crackle, nothing. They were in cloud now, but cloud should not have interfered. Ky assumed another form of sabotage though she could not think what would have that effect, then remembered the Commandant had said something about Miksland itself affecting communications. She wished she’d told Pordre about that. They dropped through the first layer; beneath were more clouds, these showing more structure. Ky hadn’t paid much attention to planetary meteorology for years, not since she’d lived on Slotter Key; she could not read the clouds for clues to the weather. At least they were down in atmosphere, descending fast into breathable air, the first requirement for survival.
She forced her attention back onto what she could do, assuming they landed safely and ignoring the possibility that the Commandant might not survive. The Commandant would take command; everyone knew him. The pilots and stewards, as the shuttle’s crew, would direct passengers; the shuttle had life rafts, and they would know how to deploy them. Once down, they would get into the rafts . . . she reviewed what she remembered about the raft drills her father had insisted on, those times he’d taken her and her brothers sailing.
Her job would be to follow crew instructions, and then offer whatever assistance she could. How many of these people had sailing experience? Many of them, probably; most people on Slotter Key lived near enough to open water, and all the early colonists had built sailing craft. Some would have had cold-water experience she didn’t have. She ran through the contents of a typical life raft in her mind, wondering if Spaceforce rafts had additional supplies. An initial supply of fresh water, and then a desalinization pump to produce more from the ocean water. Another pump to remove water from the raft. Rescue rings, lines for various purposes, sea anchors, nonperishable food, warming blankets, transponders, signaling devices of several kinds, fishing tackle, paddles, first-aid kit—it was a long list, and she couldn’t remember some items, but trying kept her mind occupied as the descent continued.